Punjab’s solution: direct seeding can save both fields and water

Pictures released by NASA some months ago, showing large-scale smoke emerging from the fields of Punjab due to burning of straw, have alarmed environmentalists with the National Green Tribunal issuing a notice to the state government.

Agriculture experts say there's a potential solution to the problem: a technique called direct seeding of rice. DSR, practised on a small scale in the state since 2006, can prevent large-scale burning after every harvest season if it is popularised strongly enough by the government.

The traditional method involves planting seeds in a nursery and later transplanting the saplings to the main cultivation area, while DST involves sowing the seeds directly in the fields, and around 10 to 15 days earlier than they would have been sown under the prevalent method.

In the traditional method, clearing of wheat stubble is a must before paddy cultivation and farmers prefer to burn it. Under the DSR technique, there is no need to clear the stubble, prepare a paddy nursery, or even puddling of the field before sowing. The technique can save not only fields from burning but also 40 per cent on water consumption and Rs 5,000 per hectare on cultivation cost, which would be a huge saving for Punjab where between 27 and 28 lakh hectares has been dedicated to the water-intensive paddy crop every year.

The state, which is looking at diversification from paddy, has so far been producing around 20 million tonnes paddy straw and 18 million tonnes wheat straw every year. Some wheat straw is used for cattle feed, and 50 per cent is burnt. Paddy straw is not preferred as cattle feed and 80 per cent of that is burnt.

Punjab has no proper management technique for stubble after harvesting and hardly any action is taken against the violators who burn it despite prohibitory orders. "Burning of straw not only kills microbes in the soil but also causes air pollution. We have been creating awareness among farmers not to burn straw," says Dr P S Rangi, consultant, Punjab State Farmers Commission.

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